Red Rag to a Bull – The True Story of Ferruccio Lamborghini

parked lamborghini sports coupe
Photo by Maurice Lustig on

“You build your beautiful cars with my tractor parts,’’ said Ferruccio Lamborghini. ‘’You are a tractor driver, a farmer. You shouldn’t complain driving my cars because they’re the best cars in the world,’’ replied Enzo Ferrari. ‘’I am a farmer.” admitted Lamborghini, ‘’but I will build a sports car myself to show you how it must be.’’

‘’This is exactly the story as told to me many times by Ferruccio himself,’’ says Lamborghini’s ex-test driver Valentino Balboni. Whether the passing years have jazzed up that famous clash between an immovable object and an unstoppable force doesn’t matter. What does, though, is that one of the most famous feuds and rivalry in auto-manufacturing history created some of the world’s most stunning cars.

Ferruccio Lamborghini grew up dirt poor on a small farm in northern Italy. As a young man with a natural talent for anything mechanical, he gained a degree in engineering before joining the Italian Air Force as ground crew.

Stationed on a Greek island during WWII, Ferruccio was made a POW by the British. He later returned home in 1946. With a shortage of men and equipment to work the land, Lamborghini started a small company making tractors using abandoned German tanks that littered the countryside.

A little over ten years later, his far-sighted ideas for building modular engines and interchangeable parts saw the factory producing 400 tractors a month. Its success paved the way for a second enterprise. Soon Ferruccio set about manufacturing heating and air conditioning equipment. 

By his mid-40’s, Lamborghini was one of the wealthiest industrial entrepreneurs in the country. With money to burn and a passion for motorsports, the self-made millionaire bought a stable of exotic sports cars. These included Jaguars, Maseratis, a gull-wing Mercedes and a Ferrari, or two.

Tweaks and Changes

As a talented engineer and amateur racer, Lamborghini decided that the Ferrari 250 GT engine needed a tweak. Rolling it into his tractor factory’s workshop, he converted the cylinder head to double overhead cam (DOHC) and fitted six horizontally mounted carbs.

When Lamborghini’s head mechanic stripped the engine, he found out that the GT 250’s clutch was the same as those fitted in their own tractors! The boss wasn’t impressed one little bit and from this discovery came a great idea.

Always on the lookout for a new business opportunity, Lamborghini figured that if he stopped pouring money into his motorsport hobby, he could open a small factory, building sports cars.

Eventually, Ferruccio couldn’t resist breaking the news of his upgrades to Ferrari, which led to Enzo’s famous hissy fit.

Was Enzo Ferrari’s put-down the reason for Lamborghini’s leap from making tractors to exotic sports cars? Although the bull would one day become the stallion’s biggest rival, the simple answer is; no.

Ferruccio Lamborghini was a master engineer, serial entrepreneur, and shrewd businessman. Although the trappings of his success were there for everyone to see, his humble beginnings meant he was ambitious. However, he wasn’t crazy enough to blow big money on a whim.

The project had likely been budgeted, the location scouted, and Ferrari’s ex-chief engineer and Maserati’s head designer reached out to, even before the clash took place.

In Ferrari’s words, ‘’I am an agitator of men,’’ and true to his zodiac sign, Lamborghini was a bull-headed Taurus. Ferrari’s insult, though, provided the perfect opportunity for Lamborghini to rev up his plans.

Mark Twain may have famously said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” but in this case, the truth is interesting enough.

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